Make your message matter

Feedback needs to deliver more than just a strong message.

In case you haven’t noticed, feedback has made a comeback.

What was once a system of “command and control” has shifted to a dynamic of “converse and connect.” Leaders are paying more attention to the message of feedback by holding themselves accountable to basic norms: Is it clear? Is it intentional? Does it tackle the tough issues, or simply dodge and disguise them? Feedback today is exchanged more frequently and with greater frequency than in years past. And more people, particularly individual contributors, now feel empowered to ask for feedback instead of waiting breathlessly for it to arrive.

That’s all very encouraging, but it’s not enough. Feedback isn’t just a report. It’s a relationship. Our job isn’t just to tell others about their work — it’s to show them how their works matters. How they matter.

We need a message that matters.

When we recognize the unique knowledge, expertise and experience of others, we show them two things:

  1. Your work matters.
  2. You matter.

Mattering is the currency of connection. When people sense that they matter, they’re more likely to feel a stronger sense of being and belonging. They experience a surge in oxytocin, the chemical responsible for lowering social inhibition and heightening our desire to be with others. And the cycle of connection is self-sustaining: The more of it we enjoy, the more of it we seek.

The downstream effects are powerful. When leaders deliver a message of mattering, they build social capital and trust. They create environments where success is counted in team wins, not personal victories. And they instill a deeper sense of purpose in everyday practice. Feedback can fuel stronger results and relationships when we give more attention to why things matter, not just why things are.

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Account for expertise.

Feedback preferences change with time, especially at various career stages. For novices, it’s a desire for reassurance: They want more coaching and context to help them choose the right path. For experts, it’s a passion for progress: They look for candor and clarity to help them advance on their chosen path. Whether it’s honors foreign language students describing their ideal teacher or savvy shoppers looking for guidance on beauty care products, experts want bare-knuckled feedback. Novices want it delivered with white gloves.

Taking those preferences into account, feedback must look and sound different depending on who you’re talking to. Tailoring our message to someone’s preferred method shows that we understand what this person wants and needs from us at this moment. Not only will this be a welcomed gesture, but it’s more likely to bring desired results.

Hone your empathy.

Empathy is the signature skill of mattering, and the better we are at understanding how others are feeling, the stronger our feedback. For some, empathy comes naturally. For others, it takes intentional practice. But our capacity for empathy starts even at a young age.

In one study, researchers gave a group of infants ranging from 14 to 18 months old two bowls of food, one containing Goldfish crackers and the other filled with broccoli. Naturally, the infants showed a stronger preference for the crackers. As they ate, so did the adults — but they expressed visible disgust while eating the crackers and obvious delight while eating the broccoli. When researchers asked the infants to pass them food, nearly 70 percent gave them broccoli. The infants may have liked Goldfish more, but they sensed that their companions liked broccoli even better.

Deliver with care.

While it’s important to show others we know them, we also have to show them carefully. Individuals who received negative feedback with encouraging social cues (such as smiles and nods) were more likely to interpret the feedback positively, while those who got positive feedback with negative emotional signals (frowns and scowls) felt worse about their overall performance.

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Feedback thrives when the message finds the mattering. Tailoring our feedback to the unique needs of individuals and telegraphing our intentions carefully helps others feel more visible and valued at work. Feedback is ultimately about what do for others, not to them. And when they feel they matter, their work will matter, too.

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